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“Where there is no vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18.

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“Where there is no vision, the people perish” – Proverbs 29:18.

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

13th September 2021

By: Raymond Suttner

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In my recent article on “deZumafication”, I referred to the absence of vision in the post-Zuma era. (See “’De-Zumafication’” and the possibly terminal crisis of the ANC”, polity.org.za., 7 September 2021). Unlike in the period of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, where the focus was on enrichment, the period of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency needs to advance a clear direction and set of goals that address people’s needs. (I thank Gerald Elliott, co-owner of Ba Pita Mediterranean restaurant for drawing my attention to the quotation from the Book of Proverbs in the bible, which is the title of the article.)

What exactly is meant by having a political vision? The word vision, and being a visionary can have an elitist connotation, for example, a person who has better insights than everyone else, by virtue of being highly intelligent. Now that is not what is intended here. When speaking of political vision, one refers to understanding the conditions in a particular society, that need to be addressed or remedied in order for all who live in that country to enjoy a better life, to live in conditions that address all their fundamental needs under a political order, where all enjoy human rights.

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Now, to acquire that vision, a vision that resonates with people, does not derive purely from books. I do not want to underestimate the importance of understanding the history of any problem that one investigates. In fact, knowing that history is crucial in developing a plan or vision for understanding and resolving a problem and very often the way of learning about that history is through reading, albeit not as the exclusive source.

Advancing a vision for a society that faces problems, that is beset by divisions and inequality needs, in the first place, understanding of all the qualities and nuances of the conditions that one wants to address as experienced by a range of people who live in diverse conditions, but especially that of people who are marginalised or hungry, sometimes starving nowadays, often jobless or unable to realise themselves in a range of ways.

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It is an important starting point to identify a problem, but not characterise it completely through one's own observation. It is the insights of people who experience the problem that ought to be a key or decisive element in moving beyond what is visible and finding a way of adequately understanding and addressing that question or set of questions with all their underlying problems, some of which are not immediately visible.

The first point of reference is to hear what people say, to listen, and through listening to learn, albeit not everything, through listening to any individual or people. This was a feature in the leadership of some of the heroic figures in liberation history. When Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were partners in a legal firm, the late Ruth Mompati records how they listened very carefully to their clients and did not rush them:

“Nelson was a very popular lawyer, not only because he was good and he knew his law… but also because he respected his clients. He made them feel they were very important and that he was there for them. He listened very well; he gave people time to speak.”

The firm appeared for villagers but often for chiefs who had been deposed by the apartheid regime:

 “… [T]hey were attracted to him because he respected them despite the fact that some of them had very little schooling. Mandela made them realise they were right to defend themselves, that it was their right as human beings not to allow anyone to disrespect them. And I think this made people realise that he listened, that he was a man who respected people irrespective of their standing in life or in society.” (Ruth Mompati, in MANDELA. The authorised portrait. Wild Dog Press in association with PQ Blackwell, 2006, foreword Kofi Annan, p. 58)

Attorneys are often impatient to steer the accounts of their clients to what is legally relevant. That often does not comprise everything that causes pain and anger to their clients. But what is regarded as admissible as evidence must be exclusively that which has a bearing on what is termed in the law of evidence as the “facts in issue”. This quality of listening has been noted for both Walter Sisulu and Chris Hani, with some people criticising Hani for spending too much time hearing the problems of every person who approached him. (Interview, Dipuo Mvelase, 1993, reporting what others voiced).

When engaging in historical research, I very often used oral evidence, that is, interviews. Sometimes before interviewing a person, I thought that I was not going to learn anything new from that person, given that I had read a lot and interviewed many others about the same question. But very often I found, however, that in allowing the interviewee to speak, the paradigm with which I had worked was completely disrupted. The understanding with which I had previously worked no longer held or needed to be more or less extensively modified. The same obviously applies to historians who spend years in archives if they test the insights derived from the archives in conversation with relevant actors.

If one is prepared to listen carefully and respectfully to everyone who is experiencing a problem, or whose experiences one wants to comprehend, one may well have one's views not only enriched, but see the necessity to recast them. Not to listen is to impoverish one’s understanding or to risk, if one is a politician or administrator, developing a top-down, bureaucratic solution.

For those who are democrats, before one advances a programme, plan or vision, one needs to hear from the potential beneficiaries in order to ensure that they do in fact benefit and that cognisance is taken of specific conditions that can affect implementation. I recall hearing how people in a conservative rural village complained how when water was provided in the early days of democracy, taps were located in a place where only men were allowed because it was where certain rituals were performed. Had the women villagers been included and heard in the planning, the problem could have been averted.

The practice and process of advancing a political vision is similar to the notion of prophetic vision. The notion of prophecy is not forecasting the future but reading the “signs of the times”. South Africa’s distinguished theologian, Father Albert Nolan has written:

“Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as people who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by focusing their attention on, and becoming fully aware of, the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading.

“Reading the signs of his times would have been an integral part of Jesus’ spirituality.” (Albert Nolan, Jesus today. A spirituality of radical freedom. Cape Town: Double Storey Books. 2006, pp 63-4.)

Prophetic vision and reading the signs of the time, amounts to similar engagement with a concept that is very popular amongst leftists, that is a “conjunctural analysis”, understanding the various forces at play in what is happening in a particular society. It is only when one understands what is happening that one may be able to advance an adequate vision for the future. Through this vision one tries to identify with precision, what the problems are and who are the potential agents for change and those who may resist. One also asks how one can strengthen those who are working for change and weaken those who reject change and want existing conditions to continue, or benefits they derive from existing conditions to continue or be increased.

That is not to deny that conventional book knowledge, acquired formal expertise in particular fields as a scholar, or professional thinker in one or other way is a crucial element in assisting in developing a vision. But it is not the exclusive route, because some of the key visionaries in the history of liberation struggles have often been people who are unlettered in the conventional sense. They do not necessarily have degrees, but they have learnt a lot, in the hard “university of life”. One thinks in South Africa, of people like Walter Sisulu and Moses Kotane who did not have a lot of formal education or any at all in the case of Moses Kotane, yet they were leading thinkers in the liberation movement. (See the broader discussion of the creation of intellectuals in the ANC and SACP, in an earlier period, Raymond Suttner, “The formation and functioning of intellectuals within the ANC–led liberation movement”, in Thandika Mkandawire (ed) African Intellectuals. CODESRIA/Zed Books. Dakar. London. 2005, 117-154, PDF available on request).

Having said that, as indicated earlier, I am not denying the importance of harnessing whatever professional expertise one has developed through universities or schools or wherever it happens to be. This is what Antonio Gramsci refers to as the role of “organic intellectuals”, a different quality from that of intellectuals nurtured through struggles and organisations themselves. (See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed Q Hoare and G Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 1971). But it is important that those of us who have that type of intellectual background must understand that there are some things that we can only learn “on the ground”, through listening to people who themselves experience oppression, disadvantage, marginalisation, or other forms of inequality.

Systematic process but also requires passion

I have outlined some of the processes involved in developing a vision. Significant work has been done by liberation theologists in the Catholic Church using the See-Judge-Act cycle developed by Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn in the 1920s, although it is sometimes said to originate with Thomas Aquinas on the importance of prudence. See https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/story/see-judge-act-the-foundational-pastoral-method-of-laudato-si/, where it is argued that Pope Francis applies this methodology, enabling those who wish to address a problem to engage in a process of observation, characterisation and acting. As I understand it, this cycle may need to be engaged in repeatedly while the problem persists.

There is another issue that also needs to be probed, that is allied to developing a vision. Many people understand social and political problems very well, but they are not motivated to act on their understandings. One may be a very knowledgeable theologian or scholar of Marxism and other revolutionary doctrines, but restrict one’s actions to contemplation. To act on what one understands requires passion, not blind passion, but a unity of how one understands a problem with a sense of pain and compassion that one feels for those who suffer injustice. That unity of thinking and compassion is often the impetus for the passion that drives some thinkers to act on what they believe.

Many people in the ANC-led alliance are trained and articulate thinkers, but given their collaboration in stealing from the poor, at the very least by voting for Nkandla spending, they no longer have the passion that drove many of them earlier in their lives. Their hearts have gone cold.

It is up to those who do care about the oppression that most South Africans still experience, to work for a new order, guided by an emancipatory vision. That will require building fresh organisational capacity, focused not so much on opposing the ANC, but finding a way of foregrounding the needs of the majority of the people and realising their aspirations for a better, fuller life, where their talents are fully realised.

NOTE: In my previous article on “DeZumafication”, cited above, I suggested that Cyril Ramaphosa did not have an adequate presence in the ANC, comparing him with Thabo Mbeki who used to be in ANC HQ every Monday. Marion Sparg has corrected me on Facebook and said that Ramaphosa is in HQ every Monday. While I apologise for that error, I stand by the criticism that Ramaphosa has not stamped his authority adequately, insofar as he has allowed Ace Magashule more space than one would have expected given that he was a robust opponent of Ramaphosa within the ANC leadership. Ramaphosa could not have driven Magashule out of office or into a corner of HQ, but one has the sense that while Magashule was aggressively amassing a base of his supporters, hostile to Ramaphosa, the response was benign.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.

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